Defending Obamacare from Old Guard Union Bosses

Workers' right to organize and bargain collectively is sacrosanct. The labor movement in this country is responsible for the 40-hour workweek, the weekend, the minimum wage, worker protection and environmental protection laws, and the American middle class. Labor unions throughout history haven't just advocated for their members, but made life better for all working Americans. They are a pillar of the progressive movement.

That is why it is important for progressives to stand up and speak out when some union leaders begin acting like corporate bosses - demanding special treatment and protection for their own privilege, and arrogantly suggesting that they are owed this debt because they spent resources electing the current president. James Hoffa of the Teamsters, along with leaders of the UFCW and Unite Here, wrote a sternly worded letter in July to Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi complaining that they weren't given special treatment under Obamacare. This month, the AFL-CIO echoed those sentiments.

Offering proof that politics makes the strangest of bedfellows, Tea Party favorite Ted Cruz quoted Hoffa's demands admiringly and at length in his non-filibuster talk-a-thon against Obamacare Tuesday night.

The letter did two things: (a) it carried the premium Republican talking point that Obamacare would kill jobs and cut hours, and more stunningly, (b) it demanded that union sponsored health plans be stroked with premium subsidies preserved for health insurance exchanges under Obamacare.

The first allegation is more annoying but easier to debunk. The claim that Obamacare is encouraging employers to cut hours is based on an idiotic scenario: the law's employer responsibility provision requires large employers (employing more than 50 full-time equivalent employees) to either offer health insurance or pay a penalty. For employers who do offer insurance, this penalty applies on the basis of each full time employee (30+ hours) who is deemed not to be able to afford the employer plan and is eligible for subsidies on the exchange. So the thought here is that employers will simply cut employees to below 30 hours so they do not have to pay the penalty.

There's a problem with that argument. The problem is that in order for the per-employee penalty to apply, the employer would have to offer insurance meeting minimum coverage standards in the first place. If they don't offer insurance at all, the penalty is assessed based on the number of full-time equivalent employees (100 employees working 20 hours a week is still 50 full-time equivalent employees), period. And when an employer - particularly a large employer - offers a health plan, it is in their best interest to have the greatest number of employees possible participate in the plan to pool risks. The smaller the number of people in their health plan, the higher their insurance company will charge them per enrollee. On top of that, the employer would miss out on two tax benefits: income taxes on their share of the premium, plus payroll taxes on the employees' share.

It is rather curious for some union leaders, who have for decades been witnesses to big business cutting hours and benefits in the pursuit of profit, suddenly join in with the same corporate CEOs to conveniently lay blame on Obamacare for doing what they have been doing since before anyone knew who Barack Obama was, let alone when Obamacare became law.

Now, let's get to the more insidious demand from the union bosses: that union-sponsored health plans, which under the law are treated exactly the same as employer provided plans, be given special treatment and afforded subsidies from the Affordable Care Act. These plans, often run jointly between employers and unions are called Taft-Hartley plans, are afforded the same legal status as any employer-sponsored plan. Contributions to those plans from the unions and the employers are tax exempt, and contributions from employees are pre-tax, just like those of other employer provided plan.

What these union bosses want is to keep that preferred tax status, and take money from subsidies the Affordable Care Act provides to those who do not have the option of affordable insurance from their employer plans. This is preposterous - this is special treatment no other employer plan gets, and nowhere in the ACA is such preferntial treatment contemplated. As Brian Beutler of TPM points out, in reality, this is about some Taft-Hartley plans disintegrating under their own weight, and the unions wanting a bailout, under the sound legal principle of "I scratched your back."

Which brings me to what is by far the most shocking part of the union boss' demand: they openly claim that they are entitled to this bailout because they are political benefactors of the president's and the Democrats. This is the most unprincipled, arrogant, power-tripped argument I have ever heard. The idea that one deserves special treatment under the law simply because one is a political supporter of the current party in power is known as corruption. Barack Obama is the president of the United States. His job is not to cater to people who think he "owes" them; his job is to implement the law.

In a democracy, the majority does not enjoy special bailouts, and the minority does not suffer from unequal treatment of the law. Hoffa and other union bosses have no more a right to demand preferential treatment under Obamacare than the Tea Party does to shut down the government.

Maybe they think that if they cannot get special treatment, then to hell with the child who need coverage to treat her cancer. Maybe they think that if they cannot double dip into the federal tax code, then to hell with 30 million uninsured people who will gain coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

This is the attitude that is harming the union movement in this country. The Republican propaganda of "I got mine, screw you" is so pervasive that it is penetrating cornerstones of progressive politics. If union bosses are more concerned about getting special treatment under the law than ensuring every American has quality, affordable health care, they are betraying the legacy of their predecessors. If unions become more concerned about their exclusive benefits than benefiting all working people, they will provide a reason of other working people to resent them.

It pains me to say this, but when I see unions trying to curry special legal favors for themselves with naked political reasoning, or complaining about outsized benefits being taxed, or arguing they would rather bankrupt a city that's always been friendly to them than give up some of their insanely generous benefits, I realize that there is a reason beyond the Republican propaganda why the popularity of unions is falling. That reason is the zeal of protecting exclusive benefits to members overriding the mission to expand share those blessings with all working people.

We need the union movement in this country. We need working people to become stronger, more united, and more capable of advocating for ourselves in a collective way. But it will not happen if today's union leadership deems their own box of privilege more important than the common good.